Muriam Haleh Davis

A theorization of the present is often a thankless task. The combined forces of serendipity, human agency, and political jockeying tend to undermine all attempts to draw either comparisons or conclusions. This is why, perhaps, even the gutsiest of theorists have been careful about proclaiming the intellectual and historical significance of the so-called “Arab Spring.”  Even Slavoj Zizek, bombast at it’s best, focused on the hypocrisy of Western liberals, analyzing reactions rather than predicting historical trajectories. Judith Butler also used the events to question how “assembly and speech reconfigure the materiality of public space.” This is a timid claim when compared with Hamid Dabashi’s The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism, which argues that the “unfolding drama of an open-ended set of revolutionary uprisings” in effect “declare and end to the condition of postcoloniality, that false dawn of nations liberated from decades of European colonialism and the waning of the Ottoman Empire." 

Dabashi riffs off the expression “an-nas yurid isqat an-nizam” (the people want the fall of the regime), claiming that an-nizam is an epistemological condition as well as political system. The word denotes “not just the ruling regime but also the régime du savoir, the regime of knowledge production that is, ipso facto, in the absence of conspiracy, in the business of distorting reality by way of making it understandable in the form of tired and old clichés – a mode of knowledge that is conducive to domination, namely ‘the West over the East,’ the ruling regime over the defiant population." One might have the impression that it was Edward Said, and not Karl Marx, who sent thousands of Arabs into the streets to demand their rights. According to Dabashi, the double attack against the prevailing nizams (political and intellectual) occurred in the wake of the “overcoming” of post-colonial ideological formations that were themselves the result of colonial rule. “For more than two hundred years” Dabashi writes, “colonial begat postcolonial ideological formations: socialism, nationalism, nativism (Islamism); one metanarrative after another, ostensibly to combat, but effectively to embrace and exacerbate, its consequenes."  

Dabashi’s double reading of an-nizam highlights a fundamental ambivalence at the heart of postcolonialism. Postcoloniality, as the historical moment that witnessed a transfer of sovereignty from the colonizers to colonized, is undoubtedly related to the questioning of “Eurocentric” epistemologies that encapsulates the theoretical project of postcolonial studies.  Dabashi is perhaps a bit too quick in equating the fall of so-called postcolonial regimes in the Middle East and North Africa with the “end” of postcoloniality. But the claim does help us reflect on the formation of post-colonial studies and it’s generally tenuous relationship with Middle Eastern Studies.  

Postcoloinal Studies, after all, was always an imported product. Formulated by historians of the subcontinent who sought to avoid Marxist models of class, it was then adopted and reworked in the framework of Middle Eastern Studies. In it’s original form, it aimed to rewrite difference in a way that neither defined the periphery in regards to the capitalist core nor re-inscribed the peasant in an elite nationalist discourse. Yet Marxism and elite nationalism did not pose the same threat for Middle Eastern Studies; scholars of the region had a different set of historiographical concerns that centered on combating the Orientalist representation of the Muslim Other rather than engaging with a canon of nationalist/Marxist literature. As a result, as postcolonial theorists and historians (usually working on India) wrote in the vernacular of hybridity and the subaltern, while scholars of the Middle East developed a reflexive defense against Orientalist modes of thinking. Locked in this anti-Orientalist posture, scholars of the Middle East were often forced to argue on the terms set by Orientlist discourse itself. They sought to show that Arabs were not violent, backwards, fanatical etc. rather than forming strategic alliances with other corners of Area Studies that might have provided insightful parallels. 

One example of this anti-Orientalist reflex is Dabashi’s critique of dependency theory: “The assumption that world capitalism has a center and a periphery has always been a powerful illusion that helped the hegemony of that figment of imagination code-named “the West,” casting “the Rest’ of the world to the presumed margins – the ideological manufacturing of a white supremacist mission civilisatrice.” But it is not clear, exactly, what “the West” had to gain from developing a theory of political economy that would give “the Rest” the tools to attack colonial economic privilege. It is even less clear that we can consider “the West” as partisans of the “civilizing mission” as evidenced by the robust debate about the difference between assimilation and association in French colonial policy. And it is outright disingenuous claim that the civilizing mission was “white supremacist” in the way we might talk about the Klu Klux Klan. The Saint Simonians, for example, who were a major force in theorizing the civilizing mission, spoke often of the benefits of the fusion of races and the positive attributes of the so-called “Arab race.” Certainly none of this points to a bastion of colonial benevolence or a call for equality, but it also does not imply the existence of a colonial monolith or orientalist hegemony. 

Dabashi’s insistence on “transcendence” (a very Hegelian move) also tends to deny the continued relevance of certain postcolonial frames. Organized labor in Egypt, for example, was a major force leading up the protests in Tahrir, often inspired by a Marxism that was a postcolonial ideological formation par excellence.  Joel Beinin claims that “since 1998 more than 2 million workers have participated in some 3500 strikes, sit-ins and other forms of protest” in Egypt.  It is equally difficult to erase the postcolonial genealogy in Tunisia, where An-Nadha is currently in power – an Islamist party that was suppressed after 1989 and gained legitimacy from it’s opposition to Ben Ali. In Algeria, a comparison between the current regime and the French colon is a common way to question the legitimacy of the ruling elite.  

Instead of declaring the “end” of postcolonial ideological formations, these examples point to the continued relevance of the postcolonial.  Stated differently, they highlight the continued uses of History 1 (Dipesh Chakrabarty’s term for linear, capital-centric time) and it’s continued imbrication with – rather than divorce from – History 2 (other forms of of temporality and memory). In looking at the continued political and theoretical relevance of the postcolonial, we might ask how the ideological configurations, popular mobilizations, and formal sovereignties are shifting rather than discarding with a set of historical experiences that continue to have strong echoes in the wake of the “Arab Spring.” In what ways is otherness permitted to exist?  To what temporalities do we domesticate these events?  How do older categories continue to provide a reference even as they are “under erasure”? 

While positing the end of the “ideological,” one cannot help but wonder whether the “overcoming” of the postcolonial is not straight-jacketing the uprisings into a new ideological formation rather than freeing it of ideology all together. In fact, the trope that Dabashi chooses to narrate this transcendence loudly echoes a discourse often harnessed to colonial rule: cosmopolitanism. While he distances himself from the Kantian conception, he claims that cosmopolitan worldliness indicates “the actual worldly experiences that have historically existed but that have been overridden and camouflaged by the heavy ideological autonormativity of ‘the West." Of course certain traditions and experiences are fashioned in a certain way through memory, but that is not necessarily a function of Orientalism or autonormativity.  The manipulation and construction of memory is more generally one of the main effects of history, wherever it may be written or experienced. 

Dahashi’s example of a space of cosmopolitanism is also problematic. For Dabashi Al-Jazeera has “effectively become an extension of Tahrir Square," a place he considers the “epicenter of a new geography of liberation.” He writes that “The Egyptian revolution succeeded in that very space between Ayman Mohyeldin and his young Egyptian revolutionaries – hopeful, determined, open-minded – giving form and frame to the memory of Tahrir Square in their minds.” Granted Al-Jazeera might be sexier than the Egyptian labor movement, but can we really deem it more “revolutionary”?  Is there not a new form of revolutionary-chic (intimately tied to a retrieval of cosmopolitanism) that is a threat to the revolutionary spirit of Egyptian uprisings (and yes, many happened outside of Tahrir) rather than its inevitable outcome? Is an outright valorization of Al-Jazeera not, perhaps, indicative of an uncritical anti-orientalist reflex? 

There is a last question lurking throughout the book that is perhaps the most troubling of all.  What are we to do with the historical and theoretical set of experiences, vocabularies, and epistomologies that we now deem “postcolonial”?  Are they something that should be transcended, as Dabashi suggests, or should we study them in their own right – not as the newest phase of history that has “overcome” the old, but as a historical moment with its own internal contradictions, modes of domination, and imaginable futures? This distinction is perhaps most clearly made by Achille Mbembe who distinguishes between “postcolonial thought” and thinking about “the postcolony.” In short, by “transcending” the postcolonialism Dabashi looses sight of what might be specific to the postcolony itself, and the fact that it’s genealogy might not be as derivative of colonialism as was previously thought.

Dabashi concludes that “In the heart of night, Egyptians were searching, for new metaphors, for the entire Arab world to renew itself." Dabashi is correct to point out that we are experiencing a crisis of metaphors and that political solidarities are actively undermining the discursive apparatus of Orientalism. But perhaps we have overstated the relevance of this apparatus – or at least attributed it with a solidity and internal logic that it never possessed. Does the fact that Egyptians are searching for their own metaphors really signal the end of the postcolonial? Or rather, does this conclusion not signal our own myopic focus on deconstructing Orientalism rather than paying attention to other discourses also in circulation?  Perhaps we have too long looked to re-center the East so that our own metaphors continue to reinforce the isolation already structurally encouraged in Area Studies. One result is the reification of the “colonial,” whose specificity is emphasized at the expense of comparisons with other systems of domination. Perhaps the problem with the postcolonial, both as a historical period and theoretical orientation, is that the “colonial” (often used interchangeably with “European Modernity”) is often taken for granted. Rather than the end of the postcolonial, then, we might interrogate the links between colonial history, post-colonial transitions, and current forms of domination. This would allow us to listen to the “voices” of these events without assimilating them to our own intellectual desire to declare the “death” of the latest theoretical trend.  

Muriam Haleh Davis is a doctoral candidate in History at New York University. Holding an MA in Arab Studies from Georgetown University and an MA in Culture and Theory from the University of California, Irvine, her research interests focus on race, decolonization and development in Algeria.  She is a regular contributor for the e-zine Jadaliyya and has also written for the Huffington Post and Al-Jazeera English